THIS FALL, NEW EXHIBITIONS featuring work by and about black people are opening in a political season like no other. Social justice issues are at the fore and change is afoot as the presidential election nears. The climate is reflected in the subjects African American artists are addressing in their work and is also paralleled in their practices as they navigate opportunity, agency, and recognition.

October marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party and several shows consider the era, including “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” at the Oakland Museum of California, and “Power to the People: The Black Panthers in Photographs by Stephen Shames and Graphics by Emory Douglas” at Steven Kasher Gallery in New York.


EMORY DOUGLAS, “H. Rap Brown (Man with Match),” 1967 (poster). | Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. All Of Us Or None Archive. Gift of the Rossman Family


Other exhibitions such as “It Takes a Nation: Art for Social Justice: With Emory Douglas, and the Black Panther Party, Africobra, and Contemporary Washington Artists” at American University in Washington, D.C., and “Ruddy Roye: When Living is a Protest” at Steven Kasher, make the connection between earlier black rights movements and today’s Black Lives Matters activism. Meanwhile, “Sadie Barnette: From Here” at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco features works inspired by the 500-page surveillance file the FBI kept on the artist’s father who was a founder of the Compton, Calif., chapter of The Black Panther Party.

At Harvard Art Museums, an exhibition curated by Sarah Lewis explores the intersection of art, justice and African American culture from the 19th through 21st century. “Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship” includes images by Gordon Parks, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and James Van Der Zee, among others.

DRAWING ON POLITICAL HISTORY, Rodney McMillan is presenting works in Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y. The University of Buffalo Art Gallery is featuring a video installation in which the McMillan recites President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 speech laying out his domestic agenda with a focus on eliminating poverty and racial injustice. “Rodney McMillan: Chisholm Reverb,” his solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Project, considers the legacy of U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first woman and first African American to seek the Democratic nomination for President in 1972.

“Until,” the title of Nick Cave’s massive new installation opening at MASS MoCA on Oct. 16, is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” Cave says he is addressing gun violence and gun control issues, and race relations in America where people of color are often considered “guilty until proven innocent.”

A pair of European shows is taking on social justice issues. Featuring more than 200 works by African American artists such as Horace Pippin, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Bob Thompson, William H. Johnson, Faith Ringgold, Ellen Gallagher, Glenn Ligon, Whitfield Lovell, Mickalene Thomas and David Hammons, “The Color Line,” a major show in Paris asks, “What role did art play in the quest for equality and the affirmation of black identity in segregated America?” At Victoria Miro Gallery in London, “Protest” explores migration, censorship, and issues of equality and democracy and includes artists such as Isaac Julien, Wangechi Mutu, Chris Ofili and Kara Walker.


CARRIE MAE WEEMS draws on the words of President Obama to emphasize the importance of voting and what is at stake in the 2016 presidential election. | Video by Carrie Mae Weems, Edited by Yao Xu


LAST FRIDAY, Carrie Mae Weems launched a video emphasizing the importance and power of voting. She pairs images of people walking down the street in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York, with the words of President Obama spoken at a recent Congressional Black Caucus Foundation event. The project supports Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.

“If you care about our legacy, realize everything we stand for is at stake. All the progress we’ve made is at stake in this election,” Obama says. “My name may not be on the ballot, but our progress is on the ballot. Tolerance is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Good schools are on the ballot. Ending mass incarceration, that’s on the ballot right now.”

“My name may not be on the ballot, but our progress is on the ballot. Tolerance is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Good schools are on the ballot. Ending mass incarceration, that’s on the ballot right now.” — President Obama

For Freedoms, the first-ever, artist-run PAC created by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, presented an exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York over the summer. The show drew attention to the police killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana when contributing artist Dread Scott raised a flag emblazoned with “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday.” Now the campaign has a presence in Chicago, where political posters designed by artists including Weems and Nari Ward, among others, will be displayed on bus benches in the Wicker Park Bucktown area.

Finally, Edgar Arceneaux was profiled on Season 8 of ART21 and during the documentary, he explained his interest in a controversial performance by Broadway veteran Ben Vereen in which he appeared in blackface at President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural celebration. The Los Angeles-based artist is presenting three bodies of work at the MIT List Center this fall. “Edgar Arceneaux: Written in Smoke and Fire” explores connections between the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and America’s post-industrial cities; presents a “labyrinthine” book installation called “The Library of Black Lies”; and features the debut presentation of “Until, Until, Until,” in which he revisits Vereen’s performance.

black women artists for black lives matter graphic - new museumTHESE EXHIBITIONS AND PROJECTS come on the heels of a historic action prompted by Simone Leigh. As a part of “The Waiting Room,” her solo exhibition that was on view this summer, Leigh invited more than 100 black women artists to take over the New Museum for an evening. Known as Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matters, the collective responded to what it called a “war on black people” with a range of healing activities and creative programming, including an opening procession, performances, workshops, videos and displays. Ten participants offered reflections on the powerful event in Hyperallergic magazine. Brooklyn-based artist Alexandria Smith said after weeks of planning, the results exceeded her expectations:

“The event was greater than anything I had or could have expected. We all came together and supported one another. I’ve yearned for an art world that would do just that. Over the years, as I became more immersed in this alternate reality called ‘the art world,’ I began to feel jaded. I was disheartened that so many are focused on developing relationships for opportunistic reasons and weren’t genuinely in it for the love and passion of the craft but merely for the fame and fortune. I made a decision long ago that I would never become that artist, and although it’s become increasingly difficult, our event solidified that I had made the right decision,” Smith told Hyperallergic.

“I was in the company of women who wanted to use their gifts to instigate change, to let our humanity be seen and heard despite what others may believe. I know our work is not done and that this collective will continue to bring about healing and work against the grain in other iterations at other institutions. I look forward to continuing to help carry that torch. Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter has reinstilled in me a belief in our abilities as Black women artists to be nurturing, compassionate, genuine, and powerful by any means necessary.” CT


Rife with images, “Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas” explores the work of Emory Douglas, the art director of the Black Panther newspaper and the organization’s minister of culture. “Question Bridge: Black Males in America” documents a five-channel video installation and touring exhibition co-created by Hank Willis Thomas. Recently published, “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” explores one of the photographer’s early and most acclaimed bodies of work, and the exhibition catalog “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video,” coincided with her mid-career survey at the Guggenheim Museum and includes full-color images of works from throughout her career and contributions by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Franklin Sirmans, Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis.


This exhibition is curated by Sarah Lewis and reflects a special Summer 2016 issue of Aperture magazine she edited and complements a Harvard course she teaches. Shown, BENEDICT FERNANDEZ, “Memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., Central Park, New York,” 1968 (gelatin silver print). | Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Beinecke Fund

“Vision & Justice: The Art of Citizenship” @ University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass. | Aug. 27, 2016-Jan. 8, 2017

Graphic artist EMORY DOUGLAS served as art director of the Black Panther Party newspaper and later became the group’s minister of culture. | Courtesy of EMORY DOUGLAS, Artist Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo courtesy of Art Resource, NY. via American University Museum

“It Takes a Nation: Art for Social Justice: With Emory Douglas, and the Black Panther Party, Africobra, and Contemporary Washington Artists” @ American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, Washington, D.C. | Sept. 6-Oct. 23, 2016

This presentation is a video installation in which RODNEY MCMILLAN casts himself as politician and recites a historic 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson speech laying out his domestic agenda focused on eliminating poverty and racial injustice: “Untitled (the Great Society) I,” 2006 (single channel video, color and sound, 15:48 minutes, looped; Edition of 5 and 2 AP). | Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

“Screen Projects: RODNEY MCMILLAN” @ University of Buffalo Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y. | Sept. 8-Nov. 13, 2016

For this exhibition, RODNEY MCMILLIAN explores the historical narratives and social systems that shape our lives, including the legacy of U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first woman and first African American to seek the Democratic nomination for President. Shown, “pod: frequencies to a manifestationing,” 2016 (vases, wood shelves, spray paint, fabric, chicken wire, PA system and sound installation, dimensions variable). | Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

“RODNEY MCMILLIAN: Chisholm’s Reverb” @ Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects | Sept. 10-Oct. 15, 2016

This is the gallery’s first solo exhibition with SADIE BARNETTE, who was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum (2014-15). Shown, “Untitled (Painted FBI Page 4 Detail),” 2016 (spray paint on white paper mounted to black rag paper). | via Jenkins Johnson Gallery

“SADIE BARNETTE: From Here” @ Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco | Sept. 15-Oct. 29, 2016

RUDDY ROYE, “Black Today (When Living is a Protest Series), Union Square, New York, NY,” May 1, 2015, printed 2016 (archival pigment print on metallic paper). | via Steven Kasher Gallery

“RUDDY ROYE: When Living is a Protest” @ Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, N.Y. | Sept. 16-Oct. 29, 2016

STEPHEN SHAMES, “Kathleen Cleaver, communications secretary and the first female member of the Party’s decision-making Central Committee, talks with Black Panthers from Los Angeles, in West Oakland, California, USA,” July 28, 1968, printed 2016 (gelatin silver print). | via Steven Kasher Gallery

“Power to the People: The Black Panthers in Photographs by STEPHEN SHAMES and Graphics by EMORY DOUGLAS” @ Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, N.Y. | Sept. 16-Oct. 29, 2016

A group show featuring several gallery artists—Wangechi Mutu, Isaac Julien, and Kara Walker, among them—examining the social and political justice issues of their time. Shown, Installation view of CHRIS OFILI, “Union Black,” 2003 for “Protest” exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 2016

“Protest” @ Victoria Miro Gallery, London | Sept. 23-Nov. 5, 2016

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967
“The Color Line” features more than 200 works in a variety of mediums by modern and contemporary African American artists. Shown, FAITH RINGGOLD, “American People Series #18, The Flag Is Bleeding,” 1967 (oil on canvas). | From the artist’s collection. © Faith Ringgold, SDAGP, Paris, 2016

“The Color Line: African American Artists and Segregation” @ Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris | Oct. 4, 2016-Jan. 15, 2017

HANK WILLIS THOMAS, “We The People,” 2015 (quilt made out of decommissioned prison uniforms). | Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 @ Oakland Museum of California | Oct. 8, 2016-Feb. 12, 2017

FAHAMU PECOU, “Even in Darkness,” 2016 (acrylic, enamel, spray paint and gold leaf on canvas). | via Lyons Wier Gallery

FAHAMU PECOU, “#BLACKLIVESMATTER” @ Lyons Wier Gallery, New York, N.Y. | Oct. 13-Nov. 12, 2016

NICK CAVE is creating his largest installation to date in a football field-sized exhibition space. “I had been thinking about gun violence and racism colliding. And then I wondered: Is there racism in heaven?” Cave told the New York Times. Shown, Detail of “Until.” | Photo by Douglas Mason via MASS MoCA

“NICK CAVE: Until” @ MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass. | Oct. 15, 2016-August 2017

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